Food Safety News
The Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Mercury Policy Project petitioned FDA in July 2011 to require signs in supermarkets and labels on packaged seafood that give consumers information on the relative amounts of mercury in fish and other seafood.
Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations requires the agency to respond to petitions within 180 days of their receipt, which means a response was due by Jan. 14, 2012. But FDA never responded, so the groups have now filed a lawsuit in federal court to set a deadline for the agency to do so.
“FDA has repeatedly acknowledged the link between seafood consumption and exposure to methylmercury in the United States, and yet it has not improved the availability or clarity of information about mercury in seafood for people … so that they can make informed decisions regarding seafood consumption,” reads the complaint filed Monday by non-profit public interest law organization Earthjustice on behalf of the advocate groups.
“The public — and especially at-risk groups such as pregnant women and heavy fish eaters — urgently need updated information,” said Michael Bender, director of the Mercury Policy Project. “It is unconscionable that FDA continues to drag its feet when the latest science indicates a far greater methylmercury exposure risk than when the agency developed its fish consumption advisory in 2004.”
The groups are concerned that FDA’s “What You Need to Know About Mercury in Fish and Shellfish” from 2004 is not reaching the general public. Labels and point-of-purchase signs, they argue, would better help consumers to reduce their risk of mercury exposure.
“Consumers deserve to have the information they need to enjoy heart-healthy seafood while avoiding dangerous mercury,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, CSPI’s director for food safety.
Raw milk regulation in the form of licensing and inspection would have gone away in Maine last year had Gov. Paul LePage not vetoed the legislation because it allowed off-the-farm sales.
Opponents of raw milk licensing and inspection are back this year with a bill that limits unregulated raw milk sales to the farm and prohibits any signage or other advertising. It allows only face-to-face sales. The re-worked bill from last session is slowly making its way through legislative committees, but it’s uncertain whether it will have time enough to get back to LePage’s desk before adjournment in mid-April.
Ronald Dyer, quality assurance and regulations director for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, favors the bill as long as it contains language limiting sales to the farm or a farm stand located on contiguous property, the product is labeled as not pasteurized, and farms post signs stating that the milk not pasteurized, licensed or inspected by the state.
Dyer says his agency “strongly supports many programs to help farmers in selling raw milk and homemade food products, and we take great pride in the ongoing work to assure we remain as flexible as possible to the needs of small producers.”
He adds that the department “should fully acknowledge and consider the widely known risks of consuming raw milk, and we believe the bill … sets a reasonable balance by ensuring an informed consumer is buying directly on-farm from the farmer.”
Dyer says both the farmer and the consumer “will be fully aware the product is not pasteurized” because of the requirements in the bill.
Unlike many state dairy organizations, the Maine Dairy Industry Association supports the legal status raw milk enjoys in the Pine Tree State. However, MDIA Executive Director Julie-Marie Bickford is on record as “deeply concerned” because this year’s raw milk bill lessens the oversight and education that accompanies licensing and inspection.
“Food safety is one of the most critical issues for anyone producing products for consumption, human or otherwise,” Bickford says. “Traditionally, milk has been one of the most heavily regulated products on the planet for the reason that it requires very precise care and handling in both its production and storage to ensure that it does not become a host for a variety of bacteria (most of which are naturally occurring) that could pose dangers to human health.”
Bickford says the bill would eliminate Maine’s current limited oversight of raw milk and raw milk sales and consequently put the public at risk of an outbreak.
The Maine Dairy Industry Association’s 287-member dairy farms produce about 70 million gallons of fresh, local milk each year for the commercial market. The organization represents the state’s $570-million pasteurized dairy industry with its 4,000 jobs.
The Maine Cheese Guild, representing the state’s 70 artisan cheese processors, opposed last year’s bill because of its allowance of off-farm sales.
The Guild sees this year’s bill as an improvement because it is “simple and straight-forward,” according to Eric Rector, the organization’s president. He did stress, however, that state licensing and inspection have helped the growth of Maine’s cheese-making businesses.
“We would not have the cheese industry we do today without the skills and resources offered by Maine’s dairy inspectors and the Maine milk lab, efforts that are also in the best interest of the dairy consumer,” he says.
Perhaps they should.
A few weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture temporarily shut the doors of Central Valley Meat (CVM), a dairy cow slaughter plant in Hanford, CA — and a major supplier to the National School Lunch Program and other federal food initiatives.
The notice to suspend operations was based on USDA findings of unsanitary conditions, the details of which have not yet been publicly disclosed. Yet, just as soon as the media began covering the story, the suspension was lifted, allowing operations to resume.
This isn’t the first time USDA has shut down CVM.
In August 2012, Compassion Over Killing, a national animal protection organization, released an undercover video exposing the abuse of animals inside this Hanford slaughter plant. The video shows cows, many of whom were sick or injured, being mistreated. Unable to walk to the kill floor, many cows were repeatedly poked, electrically prodded and lifted by their tails in an effort to get them moving. Many were eventually shot in the head. In some cases, cows were shot multiple times before dying. In other cases, despite being shot many times, cows were suffocated to death by workers who stepped on their mouths and nostrils.
After viewing this footage, USDA immediately shut the facility down, citing “egregious inhumane handling and treatment of livestock.” This story of abuse made national and international headlines and was the topic of an exclusive investigative report on ABC World News with Diane Sawyer.
As a consequence of the shutdown, federal nutrition programs suspended purchases from CVM. Several major food retailers — including In-N-Out Burger, McDonald’s and Costco — also severed ties with the facility.
Later that month, however, USDA lifted its operational suspension, allowing CVM to reopen. Shortly thereafter, the federal government resumed its purchases from this facility — putting meat from CVM back onto the plates of our nation’s students.
CVM has been shut down twice by USDA, but that’s not all. In 2011, CVM was cited by Cal-OSHA for serious safety violations after a worker was killed in a meat blender. And then, in 2013, CVM issued a recall of an estimated 90,000 pounds of ground beef — meat that was on its way to school cafeterias across the country — based on concerns that it may have contained small pieces of plastic.
This is not the only slaughter plant to raise USDA’s concerns for the safety of meat going into our school lunches. In 2008, the Humane Society of the United States uncovered abuses at Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co., another dairy cow slaughter plant in California. USDA shut the facility down in response to the video, which showed sick cows who were too weak to even stand up forced onto the kill floor and slaughtered for human consumption. The agency declared the meat to be “unfit for human food” and issued the largest meat recall in our nation’s history. About a third of that recalled meat — 50 million pounds — had been distributed to American schoolchildren.
The questionable safety of the meat entering the National School Lunch Program is hardly a new topic. But with these mounting examples of meat safety concerns, including recalls and slaughter plant shutdowns, the time is ripe to address these important issues for the sake of our children and farmed animals.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the most common sources of foodborne illness outbreaks come from animal origins. As such, replacing meat with vegetarian options may help reduce food safety risks. Eating more fruits and vegetables offers other health benefits as well. In the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, USDA, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, announced that “vegetarian-style eating patterns have been associated with improved health outcomes.”
The animals would certainly benefit from the switch, too.
Schools across the country — from Los Angeles to Baltimore to Buffalo — have successfully adopted Meatless Monday menus, demonstrating support and demand for meat-free, healthy meals.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that one of the safest and healthiest choices for our children is to start subtracting meat and adding vegetarian options to the school lunch equation.
And for good reason, said Breidt, who specializes in the safety of fermented and acidic foods. Referring to home preparers, small producers and restaurant owners, he said that “they like being able to pick up these nice flavors (from fermentation) and making new ones.”
Sandor Katz, author of “Wild Fermentation” and “The Art of Fermentation,” refers to this “food movement” as a “fermentation revival.”
Considered to be “live foods, fermented foods have a natural tart flavor because the sugars and carbohydrates have been broken down and used up during fermentation.” Katz said that, in the case of vegetables, they’re more digestible than raw ones. And, because they contain “living bacteria,” they help digest other foods in the digestive tract.
Fermentation has long been part of human history. In fact, food scientists say that it played a vital role in human survival in the days before stoves and refrigerators simply because it allowed people to preserve food in a nutritional and safe way. Think foods such as cheese, yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchee, olives, salami, jerky and even bread. And think beverages such as wine and beer, not to mention coffee and hot chocolate. All of these — and many more — are examples of fermented foods.
Although we eat one form of fermented food every day, the idea of fermenting our own food conjures up images of strange, iffy, and perhaps dangerous dishes. Surely it would be best to leave it to the experts.
Not so, say food scientists, microbiologists and fermentation advocates — especially in the case of fermented raw vegetables. They point out that just about any raw vegetable can be safely fermented at home, if done properly.
Breidt has often been quoted as saying that the scientific literature has never recorded a case of food poisoning involving raw vegetables that have been fermented properly. But he emphasized that the key word here is “properly,” which some people who quote him fail to include in that sentence.
How does it work?
Simply put, fermentation of vegetables happens when the natural bacteria in the vegetables break down the components of the vegetables into forms easier to digest and often more nutritious than the raw vegetable itself.
For those who have apprehensions about food safety, Breidt said that fermented vegetables can be safer than raw vegetables, thanks to the ability of lactic acid, which forms during fermentation, to hunt down and kill any harmful bacteria that might be present.
“It’s almost bulletproof,” he said, referring to fermentation of vegetables, which almost always includes adding salt to shredded, chopped or grated raw vegetables.
Breidt refers to lactic acid bacteria as the “world champions for consuming sugars and converting them to lactic acid.” From there, the lactic acid gets to work overpowering any pathogens on hand.
Fermentation was probably one of the first technologies adopted by humans, Breidt said, noting that it likely developed about the same time as pots in which to hold food. “Vegetables and salt got together,” he said, conjecturing about how this happy “food marriage” began.
Humans probably adopted fermentation about 12,000 years ago — at the dawn of civilization — and Breidt said the technology rapidly spread from region to region.
“We still do it the same way today,” he said. “Why? Because it works. It’s hard to mess it up. Things can go wrong, but it’s rare.”
Author Sandor Katz echoed this, telling Food Safety News that home fermentation of raw vegetables is intrinsically safe. He listed cabbage, daikon radishes, turnips, parsnips, cucumbers, okra, string beans and green tomatoes as good candidates for fermentation.
“There’s no vegetable you can’t ferment,” he said, but added that leafy greens such as kale — because of their chlorophyll content — aren’t to most people’s liking.
During an NPR interview, Katz explained that pickling and fermentation are not the same, although they are “overlapping” categories. A cucumber, for example, can be pickled with vinegar or fermented without vinegar, using a salty brine instead. During fermentation, however, vinegar and other acids are produced, which is why fermented sauerkraut and pickles taste “vinegary.”
When looking at fermented foods collectively, Katz said they’re a big part of the food industry, which means that a lot of research has been done, and is being done, on fermentation. Even now, he said, the traditional methods of fermentation continue to work well.
He pointed out that, until a few generations ago, fermentation was a common way to process foods.
“Historically, it was a way for people to preserve the harvest for the winter,” he said.
But now that it isn’t commonly done at home or in the community, people tend not to ferment foods at home because of their fear of bacteria, viewing fermentation as some sort of “mystique.”
Breidt said that, in Germany, sauerkraut was an important way to stay healthy during the winter, thanks to its nutritional value, which includes healthy amounts of Vitamin C. He also said that sailors, including those on Captain Cook’s crew, ate sauerkraut as a way to get enough Vitamin C.
“A large chunk of human history relied on fermentation as a way to preserve vegetables and help keep people healthy,” he said.
Today, fermentation continues to be widespread and practiced in all parts of the world, with regions and nations having their own special favorite fermented foods — kimchee in Korea, for example, and sauerkraut in Germany.
What about food safety?
While fermented vegetables can be safer than raw vegetables, primarily because the fermentation process kills harmful bacteria, basic food-safety practices need to be followed.
Both Breidt and Katz said that it’s important to start out with vegetables that have been grown using good food-safety practices. This includes making sure the vegetables didn’t come into contact with manure or compost that still has some pathogens such as E. coli or Salmonella in it.
“You don’t want to use vegetables that have been contaminated when they’re raw,” Katz said.
“Just normal fermentation will kill the organisms,” said Breidt. “But you don’t want to ignore good handling and good sanitary practices.”
These include washing the produce, your hands, any cutting or preparation utensils, surfaces where the food will be cut or chopped, and any containers you use for the food.
As for quality, both agree that the fresher the veggies, the better.
University of Idaho food scientist Gulhan Unlu, who focuses on food microbiology and bacteriology, told Food Safety News that the biggest concern with fermented vegetables is contamination after the foods have been fermented. This includes handling them with unclean hands, or letting them come into contact with contaminated meat or fish or with surfaces that haven’t been adequately cleaned. But overall, she agreed that, from a food-safety standpoint, fermented vegetables can be safer than raw vegetables.
A World Health Organization report, which focused on the value of fermentation for people in developing nations who don’t have refrigeration — or enough fuel to thoroughly cook their food, or to store it at high enough temperatures, or to reheat it — shared some similar thoughts about food safety.
“From the food safety point of view, the benefits of fermentation include the inhibition of the growth of most pathogenic bacteria and the formation of bacterial toxins,” states the report.
The report also made it clear that basic food-safety guidelines must be followed and states that “there is considerable evidence that lactic acid fermentation inhibits the survival and multiplication of a number of bacterial pathogens.”
However, the report adds, the potential of lactic acid fermentation to control the harmful effects of food contamination depends on factors difficult to quantify, such as the initial level of contamination, which, in turn, depends on local conditions, levels of hygiene and sanitation, and the resulting degree of acidity.
“On its own, fermentation cannot eliminate all food-related health risks, and it should not be seen as a replacement for observing the principles of food hygiene,” reads the report.
Proper temperature is important. According to USDA, at temperatures between 70-75 degrees F, kraut will be fully fermented in about three to four weeks; at 60-65 degrees F, fermentation may take five to six weeks. At temperatures lower than 60 degrees F, kraut may not ferment, and, above 75 degrees F, kraut may become soft.
The take-home message: Proper fermentation temperature allows for problem pathogens to be “selected” and destroyed, while it also inhibits the growth of organisms that can spoil the food.
Salt is an essential ingredient, and since consumers don’t usually have a good way to measure salt concentration in the finished product, they need to be sure they measure the salt carefully and follow a tested recipe. Types of salt to use are canning and pickling salt, since table salt, kosher salt, or other types of salt cannot be interchanged with canning and pickling salt. Also, salt with iodine added shouldn’t be used since iodine can inhibit fermentation.
The correct level of sale to use varies with the food being fermented. It ranges from 2.25 percent (by volume) for sauerkraut to more than 13 percent for other food items. Again, tested recipes should be followed when it comes to the proper amount of salt to use.
Salt affects the type and extent of microbial activity and helps keep vegetables from becoming soft.
Storage time also affects the texture. The shorter the time, the firmer the vegetables. Storing food that has already been fermented in the refrigerator or a root cellar significantly slows down the rate of fermentation. That’s why fermented foods can be stored for up to three months, or longer, without losing their quality and good taste.
Fermented food needs to reach a pH level of 4.6 or lower (which indicates it is acidic enough to be safe). Fermentation, if done properly, will bring food to the “safe” acid level.
In a case of botulism poisoning in fermented tofu in 2012 in New York City, the city’s health department informed the manager of the grocery store where the tofu was purchased that the tofu needed to be stored below 41 degrees F. in closed containers. The people who fell ill bought from the store’s bulk tofu, which had been kept unrefrigerated, uncovered, and in water-filled bins.
Botulism is an extremely dangerous and often deadly foodborne pathogen.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, only one similar botulism poisoning in the U.S. has been recorded. Yet home-fermented tofu and other fermented bean products are the leading cause of botulism poisoning in China. Again, the proper food-safety precautions, chief among them sanitation, but also temperature controls, need to be taken.
Sauerkraut it is
Making sauerkraut is a good way to get started on the road to fermentation. It’s simple to do but also involves a basic procedure that can be used with other vegetables, although the amount of salt and fermenting time can vary.
Breidt advises beginners to grate, chop or shred the vegetables they plan to ferment because vegetables such as carrots and beets are dense enough that it’s difficult for the lactic acid to get inside of them if they’re in big chunks. The more surface area, the better — and the safer.
However, he said that’s not the case with cucumbers, primarily because they’re about 90 percent water, which makes it easier for the lactic acid to penetrate them.
To get started making sauerkraut, select a nice-looking, firm head of cabbage that’s as fresh as possible. Remove the outer leaves and cut out any spoiled or damaged spots. Rinse the cabbage head.
Quarter the cabbage and remove the core. After shredding, grating or chopping the cabbage, put it into a clean container large enough for a generous amount of headroom at the top. Add the amount of salt suggested in the recipe and spread it out evenly throughout the cabbage. (Some people layer the cabbage and the salt.) Mix it together well, and then let it set for 10 minutes so that the salt can start drawing the juice out of the cabbage.
Katz recommends three tablespoons of salt for five pounds of cabbage. But he also says that he uses more salt in the summer and less in the winter. (A medium-sized head of cabbage weighs about 2 to 2-1/2 pounds.)
Start squeezing handfuls of the cabbage as hard as you can. The goal is to get as much juice out of the cabbage as possible. Some people pound the cabbage mixture with a potato masher or a tool known as a “kraut pounder.” Overall, this part of the process takes about 10 minutes.
Some people like to add “a starter” such as lactobacillus or whey to speed things up. But Katz said that it’s not necessary to do that since fermentation is a natural process that doesn’t need any sort of a boost. A USDA recipe for sauerkraut calls for only salt and cabbage. However, if you do use a packaged starter, make sure you follow the instructions.
Once the brine has been “released,” tightly pack the cabbage into a clean fermenting jar, crock, or food-grade plastic container (don’t use anything metal), making sure there are no cracks or scratches in the containers that could harbor pathogens.
Other good choices for containers include a glass jar with a standard airlock system (available online or in some kitchen-goods stores), a round slow-cooker insert (make sure it doesn’t have any cracks), or a specialty ceramic fermenting crock (complete with lids, weights, a water-trough-airlock system and weights).
Cultures for Health has more information about equipment and tools for fermenting sauerkraut and other vegetables.
With the goal of keeping the cabbage submerged in its brine, put some sort of sterile lid on top of it once it’s in the new container. A large plate can work well, with a zip-lock plastic bag filled with water placed on top of the plate to weight it down. A sterilized heavy rock on top of the plate will also do the trick.
In the case of a smaller batch, an open-mouth canning jar with a smaller jar filled with water placed on top of the chopped cabbage to keep it submerged works well.
Whether making a large or small batch, place a clean towel over the container and secure it with a rubber band. This will keep insects out while allowing some of the gases produced during fermentation to escape.
The goal at this point is to keep the minimum amount of oxygen from reaching the vegetables so that mold doesn’t develop. But, if a light amount of mold does develop at the surface, just skim it off and remove any of the sauerkraut that has become discolored. It’s essential not to let mold develop to the point that it can get down into the sauerkraut or other vegetables being fermented. If that happens, Breidt advises, for the sake of food safety, toss the batch.
Once all of that is done, put the sauerkraut in a place where you can keep an eye on it. After about three to 21 days, the brine will clear and the cabbage will start to taste tangy.
Start sampling to see when the sauerkraut tastes the way you want. Some people like a lightly fermented sauerkraut; others like it tangier. Once it reaches the stage you like it, put it into a container, such as a tightly covered jar, and put it into the refrigerator, making sure there’s 1/2 inch of headroom. It’s important that the brine covers the sauerkraut. If the kraut doesn’t stay submerged, add some clean water.
It’s also important to release the pressure from the gases that will build up. This can be done by opening the lid now and then to let the gases escape.
Other vegetables such as grated carrots, beets or turnips can be added to the sauerkraut mix at the beginning of the process. Adding red cabbage, which provides some color, is another option. Caraway seeds, garlic or even juniper berries are another nice touch.
“Why not?” Breidt commented, referring to using a mix of ingredients. “That’s what adds flavor and variety to fermented vegetables.”
As the sauerkraut cools down when you put it in the refrigerator or into a root cellar, the fermentation process slows rapidly, which means you’ll be able to enjoy the finished product for several weeks or longer.
Many people find that putting their fermented vegetables in a root cellar or refrigerator for four to six weeks improves the flavor. In storage, the bacteria continue to ferment, but at a very slow rate.
Fermented vegetables with 1 percent to 2 percent salt by volume of the fermented product should keep well for at least four to nine months, respectively, in a refrigerator. A 2-percent salted version should keep well in a dark, cool area such as a root cellar for at least three months, if the vegetables are kept submerged under liquid.
Some people recommend covering the containers with a dark cloth to maintain Vitamin C levels.
Katz has a video of how to make sauerkraut on YouTube.
The National Center for Home Food Preservation has more information about fermentation and recipes including sauerkraut and pickles.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture now believes that the approximately 8.7 million pounds of meat recalled by Petaluma, CA, processor Rancho Feeding Corporation and lacking a full federal inspection was shipped to distribution centers and retail establishments nationwide.
The Class 1 recall initially stated that the recalled products had been shipped to distribution centers and retail establishments in California, Florida, Illinois and Texas.
The current list of distributors published by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) includes more than 5,800 specific retailers (a previous version listed more than 6,300) in 45 states, Washington, D.C., Guam and Puerto Rico.
There are another 171 “Nationwide, State-Wide, or Area-Wide Distribution” locations listed that include 7-11, Albertsons, Family Dollar, Kroger, Piggly-Wiggly, Walgreens and various gas stations. Shell and Target are the two stores with locations listed as “nationwide.”
FSIS reissued the recall release on Feb. 18, stating that the update is “a consequence of a properly working recall process.”
“When the recall release was first issued on February 8, FSIS was unable to ascertain the extent of the establishments involved,” the notice reads. “As the establishments were notified, the list of States affected grew.”
In the March 8 update, more than 2,300 stores are listed for California, the state with the most retailers. Among the additional “Nationwide, State-Wide, or Area-Wide Distribution” locations in California are about 60 chains including 7-11, Chevron, Family Dollar, Food 4 Less, Rite Aide, Safeway, Walgreens and Winco.
Nestlé has also recalled some of its Hot Pockets sandwiches because, although the company did not purchase meat directly from Rancho, “a small quantity of meat from Rancho was used at Nestlé’s Chatsworth, California production operation.”
The following Rancho Feeding Corporation products are subject to recall:
- “Beef Carcasses” (wholesale and custom sales only)
- 2 per box “Beef (Market) Heads” (retail only)
- 4-gallons per box “Beef Blood” (wholesale only)
- 20-lb. boxes of “Beef Oxtail”
- 30-lb. boxes of “Beef Cheeks”
- 30-lb. boxes of ” Beef Lips”
- 30-lb. boxes of “Beef Omasum”
- 30-lb. boxes of “Beef Tripas”
- 30-lb. boxes of “Mountain Oysters”
- 30-lb. boxes of “Sweet Breads”
- 30- and 60-lb. boxes of “Beef Liver”
- 30- and 60-lb. boxes of “Beef Tripe”
- 30- and 60-lb. boxes of “Beef Tongue”
- 30- and 60-lb. boxes of “Veal Cuts”
- 40-lb. boxes of “Veal Bones”
- 50-lb. boxes of “Beef Feet”
- 50-lb. boxes of “Beef Hearts”
- 60-lb. boxes of “Veal Trim”
Beef carcasses and boxes bear the establishment number “EST. 527″ inside the USDA mark of inspection. Each box bears the case code number ending in “3” or “4.” The products were produced Jan. 1, 2013, through Jan. 7, 2014, and shipped to distribution centers and retail establishments nationwide.
FSIS has received no reports of illness due to consumption of these products. Anyone concerned about an illness should contact a health care provider.
Now that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will no longer be held to deadlines for FSMA rule comment periods, industry groups are asking for more time to give their input on certain regulations.
The National Grain and Feed Association (NGFA), the American Feed Industry Association (AFIA), the Pet Food Institute (PFI) and the National Renderers Association requested that FDA extend the comment deadlines by 90 days for its proposed rule on preventive controls for pet food and animal feed and draft methodological approach to identifying high-risk foods.
Under this proposal, the animal food rules comment period would end June 30 and the high-risk food guidance on July 7. Some of the signatories also requested that FDA re-propose the animal food rule and offer a second comment period.
The NGFA, AFIA, PFI and the National Oilseed Processors Association (NOPA) also requested that FDA extend the comment period for the proposed intentional adulteration rule to June 30.
FDA’s current deadlines for open comment periods are March 15 for the environmental impact statement for the produce rule, March 31 for the animal food and intentional adulteration rules, April 7 for the draft methodological approach to identifying high-risk foods, and May 31 for the sanitary transportation rule.
If media reports prove to be true, the U.S. Department of Agriculture shut down the Rancho Feeding slaughterhouse in northern California because the facility was processing cows with eye cancer. The official reason was because Rancho had “processed diseased and unsound animals.”
What happened at Rancho is the subject of an ongoing investigation by USDA’s Inspector General (IG) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Northern California. This past Friday, Daniel Engeljohn, who oversees field operations for USDA’s Food Service and Inspection Service (FSIS), met with area ranchers and congressional staff.
Ranchers who used Rancho for custom processing services are keeping pressure on USDA to remove their meat from the recall involving almost 9 million pounds of beef distributed commercially to at least 6,300 retail outlets.
Dr. Mark Anderson, a University of California-Davis expert in diagnostic pathology, often sees cow eye cancer in biopsies as he looks through his Center for Food Animal Health microscope at the School of Veterinary Medicine.
Anderson says the problem is “very common” and is affected by the age of the animal and how often it has been exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light. Since UV light is found in sunlight, too much UV light can be absorbed and damage eye structures, including the cornea, lens, and retina.
Epithelioma is commonly called “cancer eye,” says Dr. William James, USDA’s former chief veterinarian. “In cattle, it most often involves the un-pigmented (white) skin around the eye of older Holsteins. Maybe 1 to 2 percent of the older Holsteins have it at slaughter.”
James told Food Safety News that if the tumor has spread to the extent that it has destroyed the eye, the animal is condemned on ante-mortem (before slaughter) inspection.
“If the tumor is relatively small, the animal is tagged a ‘suspect’ and is slaughtered,” he said. “The PHV (Public Health Veterinarian) inspects it at post-mortem.”
“If there has been significant spread around the eye (visible after removal of skin), or if there has been metastasis to the lymph nodes of the head, the entire animal is condemned — head, carcass, viscera,” James explained. “If the tumor is localized, the head is condemned and the carcass and viscera passed, assuming no other condemnable diseases or conditions (are found).”
James said if the epithelioma has spread or metastasized, condemnation is required by FSIS because of the generalized diseased condition.
“It is not a food safety concern, he said.
The Jan. 14 suspension letter FSIS sent to Rancho alleges that the company sold cattle “likely affected with epithelioma of the eye.” Apparently two cattle heads with “cancer eye” were without incisions for the four pair of lymph nodes that would exist if a post-mortem inspection had occurred.
There seem to be questions whether Rancho might have been getting around the system that routinely identifies and removes diseased cattle before they can get into the human food supply. In fact, epithelioma is among the major reasons for condemnations that are part of the job for USDA meat inspectors. Every month, they condemn about 20,000 head of cattle at the slaughterhouse.
A recent College of Veterinary Medicine report from Washington State University puts epithelioma among the top four reasons for condemnation. WSU also had this advice for livestock owners:
“Cancer eye condemnation can also be reduced by an early detection and treatment program, by selecting breeding stock with dark pigmentation or color around the eye, checking eyes whenever cattle are gathered for other routine procedures, treating or rechecking cattle with early lesions every two to six months, and sorting cattle with lesions for veterinary evaluation and treatment,” the WSU report said.
Options for treatment include surgery, cryosurgery (freezing), hyperthermia (heating), or some combination.
(Photo courtesy of Washington State University.)
I recently retired from the Office of Policy and Program Development (OPPD) at the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) after more than 30 years with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For what it’s worth, I’d like to share my thoughts on FSIS culture and six issues that represent significant investments of my time and energy.
I took the oath of office on a Monday and reported for work the next morning. As a veterinarian, my first assignment was as Supervisory Veterinary Medical Officer (SVMO) at a small swine slaughter facility. I spent my first weeks with other veterinarians learning slaughter inspection and sanitation. I learned command and control from their actions and statements. Industry was the enemy, and my job was to protect the consumer from industry. I learned management by avoidance from my first supervisor, who repeatedly told me to avoid actions that might cause inspector or establishment complaints to the Area Office. He also told me that helping me solve my problems was not his job.
My first assignment left me unprepared for my second assignment as SVMO at a large livestock slaughter and processing establishment. The vacancy in the Circuit Supervisor position did not help. Between the company’s corporate support structure and the FSIS inspector’s union, I was repeatedly chewed up and spit out that first year. The job was not fun.
About this time, the Area Office sent me to training in Fort Worth, TX. The curriculum ignored the practical reality of command and control and management by avoidance that I experienced in the field. Deliverance came later that year in the form of Dr. H., the best mentor I ever had. He taught me how to be hard on problems and soft on people. The job became enjoyable. Five years later, I earned a promotion in a location where my wife and I chose to remain. Twenty-four years later, I am retired.
I’d like to share my thoughts on six issues that occupied my time and energy at FSIS, as well as my grade for how well FSIS handles them:
- I give FSIS a B for its training programs. Moving the training center to Texas A&M, increasing the scholastic standards for training courses, and standardizing field training significantly improved training. The current training program is even better. New-hire veterinarians no longer arrive at their first assignment unprepared and alone. The absence of sustaining support from OPPD in Omaha prevents a higher grade. The previous Office of Field Operations (OFO), Technical Service Center (TSC) operation engaged in critical thinking and problem-solving in partnership with field employees. The current OPPD operation does not. Solving problems is not their job.
- I give FSIS a D for data collection. FSIS does not collect data with improvement in mind. The Public Health Information System and its predecessors, the Performance Based Inspection System and Inspection System Work Plan, are little more than scheduling tools. They document the quantity of work performed, but nothing about its quality or effect. FSIS abandoned its Public Health Human Resources System, another data-driven initiative, after managers failed to implement the system as designed and deliver the increased performance sought. Right now, FSIS struggles with the fact that its data-collection efforts cannot validate its strategic plan.
- I give FSIS an A for its residue program. When I joined FSIS, residue testing was a passive activity, in-plant testing nonexistent, SVMO-generated samples rare, and carcass condemnation rarer. Today, SVMOs proactively retain and test suspect carcasses. Carcass condemnation for a residue violation is common. No other FSIS program is as successful at finding and eliminating adulterated product. The credit belongs not to FSIS, but to Dr. S., an FSIS SVMO whose curiosity led him to prove that the existing residue program failed to identify residue violations in dairy cattle.
- I give FSIS a C for its humane slaughter program. When I joined FSIS, there was no District Veterinary Medical Specialist and humane slaughter was a non-issue. Today, humane slaughter is a front-page concern. Unfortunately, fear of unfavorable press, not the intent of Congress, drives the FSIS humane-handling agenda, which allows the animal-rights movement to co-opt FSIS. The best evidence of co-opting is the FSIS extra-legal attempt to create the perception of inhumane slaughter of poultry where it does not exist.
- I give FSIS a C for its pathogen-control programs. The 1993 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak was a kick in the pants for FSIS, and it responded commendably. FSIS declared the microorganism a “poisonous or deleterious substance.” It required safe-handling statements on raw meat products. It elevated standards for determinations that E. coli O157:H7 was not a food safety hazard reasonably likely to occur. It introduced product verification testing. The policies for Listeria monocytogenes in RTE products were a logical next step. FSIS deserves no commendation, however, for its Salmonella policies. In 1974, FSIS successfully argued in federal court that Salmonella does not adulterate raw poultry. In 2001, again in federal court, FSIS unsuccessfully argued that Salmonella does adulterate raw meat. No one wants Salmonella on raw meat and poultry products. However, attempting to regulate Salmonella as a food safety hazard is as fruitless as pounding square pegs in round holes. Even worse, expending resources to perpetuate the public perception of a regulatory Salmonella performance standard – which does not exist – is bad stewardship of appropriated funds.
- I give FSIS a C for its implementation of Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP). The sanitation and HACCP regulations in 9 CFR 416 and 417 are the most significant change to meat and poultry inspection since the Wholesome Meat and Poultry Products Acts. FSIS called HACCP a “paradigm shift” in the FSIS approach to inspection and declared “command and control’ dead. The battle cry from the OFO, TSC, which implemented HACCP, was “let the system work.” It was an exciting time, a potential renaissance. FSIS made progress and credit is due, but the paradigm did not shift. Command and control did not die. FSIS simply replaced the strong-arm dictatorship of the Inspector in Charge with the bureaucratic tyranny of the policy-maker. Offering waivers to establishments that promise to do your bidding is subornation, not experimentation. Threatening public disclosure of opinions called Memorandums of Interview is intimidation, not enforcement.
Ask FSIS why it exists and you hear about Upton Sinclair’s novel, “The Jungle,” and how USDA inspectors protected the consumer from the meat-packing industry. That same 1905 command-and-control culture is alive and well in 2014. To abandon command and control, to allow the system to work, suggests that a policeman is no longer necessary. Perpetuating the perception of a “bad guy” serves FSIS interests, not public interests. I do not know when or where the culture of management by avoidance originated, but it, too, is alive and well. Fecal Soup, Jack in the Box, AgriProcessors and Hallmark are all evidence of avoidance to act until after third parties made public what FSIS previously ignored. A reliance on product verification testing evidences avoidance to apply its own inspection processes, the HACCP principles FSIS requires of industry.
Managerial avoidance also exists. I have witnessed FSIS managers exclude employees from productive work because it is easier to avoid a dissenting opinion than to consider it. Beginning in May 2013, I watched FSIS pay a co-worker to stay home and do nothing because it is easier to hide management failures than admit them and easier to avoid individuals than deal with them. Her sole responsibility is to call in each morning and ask if the director has any work for her to do. To date, no work has been assigned.
FSIS serves a useful public purpose, and I do not regret 30-plus years invested in that purpose. I will miss the people, but not the process. A lot changed in 30 years, but some important things did not.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently posted the latest data from the Pesticide Data Program (PDP) annual summary and, as in previous years, the agency found that, “U.S. food does not pose a safety concern based upon pesticide residues.”
“This is continuing evidence that fruits and vegetables for sale in the United States are exceedingly safe,” Marilyn Dolan, executive director of the Alliance for Food and Farming, said of the 2012 report.
Each year, USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) work together to identify foods to be tested on a rotating basis, focusing on “commodities highly consumed by infants and children.” In 2012, surveys were conducted on a variety of foods, including fresh and processed fruits and vegetables, wheat, butter, and water.
More than 99 percent of the products sampled through PDP had residues below the EPA tolerances. Residues above the tolerance levels were detected in 0.53 percent of the samples. In analyzing the data, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) noted that there were 63 tolerance violations, which included methamidiphos and acephate residues on 24 samples of cherry tomatoes and 32 samples of snap peas.
But EPA determined that, “the extremely low levels of those residues are not a food safety risk, and the presence of such residues does not pose a safety concern.”
What to Eat
Dolan told Food Safety News that she is frustrated when such reports don’t generate much attention. It’s reports like the EWG’s Dirty Dozen that get noticed, she said, adding that the upcoming version of the Dirty Dozen list “will tell consumers the exact opposite of what’s in this report.”
Concerned about how pesticide exposure negatively impacts neurodevelopment and behavior, groups such as EWG encourage parents to give their children organic fruits and vegetables. The Dirty Dozen list is meant to help parents avoid the 12 “most contaminated fruits and vegetables.”
A 2012 report on various routes of pesticide exposure from the American Academy of Pediatrics noted that “dietary modifications can help reduce pesticide exposure” and that “consumption of organic food may lower pesticide exposure.”
However, Dolan said that following EWG’s guidelines for buying organic produce makes increasing our fruit and vegetable intake more difficult and more expensive.
“It’s true that most samples meet legal limits every year, but legal doesn’t always mean safe,” argues EWG senior analyst Sonya Lunder.
The EPA’s pesticide tolerances are meant to keep track of whether farmers are applying pesticides properly – not too late in the season or in amounts above what’s allowed – Lunder said.
“I see no reason to regard the EPA’s exposure limits as the final word on pesticide safety,” Dr. Andrew Weil told Alex Formuzis, EWG’s vice president for media affairs, in a blogged response to a recent Slate column arguing for conventionally grown fruits and vegetables over organic versions.
EWG believes these tolerance levels are not set to protect children eating produce and, if they were the standard, more fruits and vegetables would fail.
“Some liken pesticide tolerances to a 500-mph speed limit,” Lunder said. “It is too easy to comply and does not guarantee anyone’s safety.”
EPA states that data from the PDP are used to enhance its programs for food safety and help evaluate dietary exposure to pesticides. “The Pesticide Data Program provides reliable data through rigorous sampling that helps assure consumers that the produce they feed their families is safe,” reads an EPA statement.
Regardless of whether it’s organically or conventionally grown, everyone should be eating more fruits and vegetables. Even EWG points out that “eating conventionally-grown produce is far better than not eating fruits and vegetables at all.”
And, no matter which choice consumers make, it’s important to remember to wash produce to reduce or eliminate residues. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that people wash fruits and vegetables with large amounts of cold or warm tap water, scrub them with a brush if it’s appropriate, and not use soap.
Standing in the door of my school cafeteria was a nun, who, in the full garb of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, stood about seven feet tall.
Like a giraffe leaning down to pick fruit off a tree, the same tall SBS nun would lower herself just in time to catch my passing ear and quickly say: “Eat everything you take, Daniel, or you will burn in hell for wasting the food God provides.” It was the only school lunch rule I can remember. And, while it sounds fairly religious, I am pretty sure the targets of my rocks at the public school across the street were also in the “clean plate” fraternity. People who survived the Depression and fought World War II were in charge back then, and food waste was a universal “sin.”
Boy, how things have changed. In the name of “nutrition reform,” USDA’s National School Lunch Program (NSLP) has a policy in place that teaches more than 30 million school children in 100,000 schools on every school day by the example it sets that it is OK to waste food. In fact, it’s required.
The reason is that USDA’s new nutrition rules demand that each little hand of a student getting a subsidized school lunch or breakfast must take the vegetable or fruit offering even if they plan to toss it in the garbage can. Many do, almost immediately.
This government policy guaranteed to waste food is well into its second school year, and the phenomenon has hardly received any attention outside of the local newspapers where folks go to check the school menus for next week. The way the nutrition rules are contributing to food waste is only the most egregious example of how unintended consequences are warping a worthy policy goal to give kids more healthy food choices.
High school kids in Kansas, where the old-fashioned concept of “chores” still exist, made enough fun of how they were getting hungry during the school day because of the “Hunger-Free Kids Act” that USDA backed off some of its one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition reform and took limits off meat and grain portion sizes.
Finally, however, some evidence has turned up for those who think things are not right in the local school cafeteria, and it’s time to open this issue to some badly needed counter-reform.
And no one needs to get into a hissy fit about Congress making some changes. Parents and others who question what is going on with nutrition reform agree that kids should get healthy choices. The problem is USDA’s failure to implement – the federal government’s problem of our time.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is out with a report on the NSLP shrinkage, which is another unintended consequence of this reform. The losses add up to a staggering 1.6 million kids from families who could pay for their own school lunches. They’ve dropped out entirely over school lunch prices or menu changes, or both. Chances are the lunches they are purchasing at the mall or the drive-in are not all that healthy.
Just as the federal government’s ill-fated healthcare reform kicked off with mandates that forced cancellation of millions of existing health insurance policies, the NSLP changes did make up some of the losses from its cash-paying customers by handling out more free lunches to needy students. But GAO found the addition of about 400,000 new free lunch takers still left the program down by about 1.2 million. Previously, there had been some reports that 500 to 600 schools had dropped out of the NSLP. With 100,000 schools and a couple hundred probably always coming or going, the school-loss issue could be played down. USDA’s problem now is the NSLP is getting smaller in half of the country’s schools.
The Washington Post said the GAO report “paints a dismal picture,” and that is probably an understatement. Unlike some audits by GAO, this report is very careful with its language. It speaks of “challenges,” where “failures” might be a more appropriate word. It says there is a need for “clarification of oversight,” where it might have just spelled out how USDA might get its act together. Language aside, the GAO report provides evidence that food waste is massive and state and local food authorities find it troubling. In GAO speak, they call it “plate waste” and blame its significant increase during the 2012-2013 school year squarely on the new lunch requirements.
Even a Harvard study that claimed new standards were not responsible for increasing waste in four Boston schools (again, there are 100,000 schools in the NSLP) found overwhelming food waste. It said the “consistently high levels of fruit and vegetable waste are concerning.” The Harvard study said food waste at the four Boston schools included 60-75 percent of all vegetables and 40 percent of all fruit served. The researchers said that was typical for urban, low-income schools with a diverse enrollment.
No mention in the GAO report of this, but the nutrition reform must be turning many a lunch lady to drink. They’ve had to raise lunch prices, buy more pricey fresh fruits and vegetables, and then figure out what to do with tons of food waste as garbage bills consume their budget surpluses. They have to look for state and local government funds to get into the compost business. And it goes round and round as they try and work through costly problems created by USDA dictates.
But every issue impacts another. When students are leaving campus in droves, there’s nothing the lunch lady can do but chase after them. In Colorado, the Boulder Valley School District has accepted a donation from Whole Foods to buy a $75,000 food truck for the lunch program. It will work the area between the schools and the parking lots with the district’s healthy food options. Boulder Valley’s food truck is but one of dozens of examples of local school districts trying to catch all the spills created as this mishmash has played out.
State and local school food service managers have brought their fixes forward through the School Nutrition Association (SNA), and changes will be made by Congress in 2015 when federal child nutrition programs are up for re-authorization. At a minimum, Congress needs to make sure we are not teaching kids that food waste is OK. We need to go back to that old lunch line rule of taking only what you plan to eat.
This summer, parents should ask candidates for Congress if they’ve sat down yet in the district’s empty lunchroom for a talk with their local school food service personnel about their experience working with the new USDA standards during the past two academic years. If those conversations occur, Congress will do the right thing. The SNA recommendations are a good place to start.
Tampa Bay Police report that, shortly after dinner, Ronnie Morales felt sick and called 911. However, he was feeling so ill that his girlfriend drove him to St. Joseph’s Hospital. When they arrived, his girlfriend also became ill and was rushed across the street to St. Joseph’s Women’s Hospital, where they induced labor, as she was nine months pregnant.
A short time later, her daughters, 7-year-old Elyana and 6-year-old Rayna, started experiencing hallucinations and felt ill. Both children and Ronnie Morales received tracheal intubation and were hospitalized. They were released from the hospital in good condition on Wednesday, March 5, and the mother and her healthy baby boy were released the next day.
TPD’s forensic investigators took possession of the food items that the family had consumed prior to falling ill. They also took the family’s oven for testing. Initial test results received from the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner’s Office determined that the family consumed bottom round steak contaminated with LSD. Toxicology test on samples from the family members are pending, and results are expected in the next three weeks.
Detectives determined that the family bought the meat at a Walmart located at 1501 N. Dale Mabry Hwy. The chain has been very cooperative with the investigation and voluntarily turned over all meat of that type on their shelves at the time. The medical examiner is currently testing that meat.
TPD does not have any other similar cases, and, at this point, it appears to be an isolated incident. Detectives are still working to determine if a crime has occurred. The U.S. and Florida Departments of Agriculture, along with the Hillsborough County Health Department, are investigating the case with TPD detectives.
Less than a year after it was named the source of an E. coli outbreak that sickened 10 people, Coco Loco at A&M, a Mexican restaurant in College Station, TX, has made the news again for a bad health inspection report.
Regional publication The Eagle listed Coco Loco at A&M among recent area restaurants with health inspection infractions.
According to the inspection, which earned the restaurant a grade of 77 out of 100, the following problems were detected:
“Improper manual/mechanical ware washing and sanitizing, improper cooling for cooked/prepared food, food items not reheated to 165 F in two hours, unapproved sewage/wastewater disposal system, food contact surfaces of equipment and utensils not cleaned/sanitized/good repair, lack of good hygienic practices.”
The E. coli outbreak tied to Coco Loco occurred slightly less than a year ago, when 10 people became ill. Among them were two young brothers who developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a potentially fatal kidney disease associated with severe E. coli infections.
Indiana health officials have found no unusual chemical substances in packages of Original Skittles sold at a Richmond, IN, Marathon Food Mart.
Possible contamination of two lots of Original Skittles was determined when field testing showed preliminary chemical results on March 5. These results are unsubstantiated as no toxins were found in the candy.
The tests were prompted by the sudden illness of two people who ate from a package of Skittles on the afternoon of March 4. The individuals visited Reid Hospital and were treated for burning throats, cramping and diarrhea and have been released from the hospital.
As a precaution to protect public safety, the Indiana State Department of Health issued a warning yesterday, based on test results conducted with equipment available in the field. It is not uncommon for equipment available in the field to yield results that are found to be different than those obtained in a laboratory test, which is why lab tests are conducted for confirmation.
The Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Food and Drug Administration were investigating whether someone tampered with the package and authorities initially warned those with a bag of Skittles with the lot numbers 08JUL14 023 or 01DEC14 023 not to eat the candy and to contact the Indiana State police.
Now that advanced testing has determined no presence of unusual chemical substances, the state police are closing the investigation. There is no further need to collect samples of Skittles purchased from the Marathon Food Mart.
“The safety of our consumers and the quality of our products are our top priorities,” said Wrigley spokesperson Denise Young. “We commend the Indiana State Department of Health for their swift and thorough investigation into this issue.”
(Editor’s note: The headline of a previous version of this article stated that specific packages of Skittles had been recalled. This was incorrect, and Food Safety News regrets the error.)
With each passing poultry-associated Salmonella outbreak over the past few years, there has been an increased focus on this pathogen and its control. Along with that is an increasing use of the term “virulent.”
But what does “virulent” really mean, and should we worry about some strains being more virulent than others? Does evading mitigation in processing make a pathogen “more virulent,” as some seem to indicate? Does the fact that a strain is antibiotic-resistant define it as more virulent?
As we look at how the term “virulent” is being used by the public health community, regulators, consumer groups and others – often extending beyond the molecular and clinical definition – what impact will this have on food processors and future policy measures?
To understand the conundrum, we need to first understand what we mean by virulent and ensure that everyone is using the same definition. Right now, we’re not all on the same page. As defined in relation to pathogens by the Miriam Webster Medline dictionary, virulent means “able to overcome bodily defense mechanisms.” Or, in simpler terms, able to make you sick.
Overcoming bodily defense mechanisms is different than overcoming food industry or consumer mitigations (such as high pressure or cooking). It’s different than resisting clinical treatments (such as antibiotics). But recent statements equating virulence with antibiotic resistance, or suggesting that resistance to heat results in increased virulence, begins to blur these issues together. This has caused confusion and could lead some down the wrong path to finding a solution that reduces illness.
Now, to get a little techier, what makes a strain of bacteria more or less virulent (or able to make you sick) begins with its genetic makeup. Genes encode proteins and proteins can result in clinical effects. A good example is that an E. coli strain that makes Shiga toxins (like O157:H7) is generally more virulent than the same bacteria that does not make Shiga toxins. Strains can evolve to become more virulent, swapping genes and whole chunks of DNA (sometimes referred to as pathogenicity islands) and other genetic components that enhance the ability of the strain to survive through the digestive tract and bypass or fool the human’s immune response.
What does not make a strain more virulent is resistance to processing, or its ability to evade mitigation. To explain, say a chicken carcass has 10 strains of Salmonella. Say further that, after processing, one strain was able to evade all processing controls and remain on the chicken. To say that just because it is there it will make someone sick is not a foregone conclusion. Salmonella Kentucky is commonly found on chicken, but it’s rarely associated with illness. With that said, one has to ask why certain strains tend to hang around on chicken more than others. And is their ability to “stick” to poultry somehow associated with the likelihood they will cause illness? So far, the connection has not been made, but we can’t rule it out.
Another question that often emerges is whether Salmonella strains that are resistant to antibiotics are more likely to make you sick. The jury is still out on that one, but the reason a strain becomes resistant to antibiotics is because it picks up new genes. Sometimes groups of genes move together, so it is possible that, when a Salmonella strain acquires an antibiotic resistance gene, it also picks up some new gene at the same time that confers a greater ability to cause infection – e.g., more virulent.
What is important with regard to antibiotic resistance is that, if a person does get sick and needs antibiotics, it is important for the patient that the antibiotic prescribed by the physician will work. If the Salmonella are resistant to antibiotics, that may not always be the case. Why some strains of Salmonella are more likely to make some people sick than others goes back to the techy molecular biology research. But, at least so far, science doesn’t support a blanket statement that virulent strains are more likely to be resistant to antibiotics than less-virulent strains.
We could do a lot more for human health by better understanding which strains are more likely to make people sick, finding out why, and finding ways to prevent that. If it’s because they are truly more virulent (more likely to make people sick, all else being equal), then do we go down the road of pinpointing efforts in the food industry against those worst offenders?
Have some strains of Salmonella figured out a way to avoid current mitigations? Do we change our mitigations (developing new rinses, new processing methods, changing recommended cooking temperatures, etc.)? The approach to protecting public health – and industry’s role in doing this – could be very different depending on that root cause.
Today we have the challenge that we simply don’t have answers to all these questions. Only by getting answers can we better control risk both in plants and with regard to public health. We need to ensure we have answers before any new regulatory policy is put in place. But, at this stage of the game with Salmonella, my instincts are that they are not all created equal. However, can we afford to ignore some strains vs. other strains from a public health perspective in humans? Not yet.
The San Francisco, CA-based firm issued a client alert last month after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published its interim final rule regarding the employee protection (whistleblower) provision of FSMA.
Section 402 of the act ensures that employees of an “entity engaged in the manufacture, processing, packing, transporting, distribution, reception, holding, or importation of food” are protected against retaliation for reporting a violation of the act or testifying in a proceeding about a violation. The OSHA rule establishes the procedures and timeframes for handling retaliation complaints as part of FSMA.
The authors of the alert write that whistleblowers are protected “as long as they have a reasonable belief — defined in the regulation as a subjective, good-faith belief and an objectively reasonable belief — that the complained-of conduct violates the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA).” However, they say the whistleblower doesn’t need to demonstrate that what they complained about actually violated the law.
“What the new rule does is emphasize the point that there’s a huge amount of latitude given to employees to complain,” alert co-author Earl “Chip” Jones told Food Safety News. “Because of that, employers need to be very careful about taking disciplinary action against an employee that may be disgruntled, may be complaining about issues at work, but also having performance problems.”
Littler Mendelson’s alert recommends that employers develop a food safety reporting policy, train line managers and supervisors about the importance of dealing with complaints, log complaints, document investigations into the subject matter of the complaint and any actions taken as a result, and ensure that any adverse action taken with respect to an employee who has lodged such a complaint would have been taken absent the complaint.
Jones says that the FSMA protection creates “a very low bar to establish a claim.” One example he gives for why the bar may be too low is FDA’s Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMPs). They’re vague, he says, “so when someone is complaining, it makes it very difficult for anyone to know whether that’s actually a violation of a substantive law or regulation.”
OSHA’s interim final rule has been effective since Feb. 13, but comments and additional materials about it can be submitted until April 14.
More than 100 organizations signed a letter sent to President Obama on Thursday asking the White House to withdraw the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s proposed rule on the “Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection.”
The organizations signing on to the letter cover a range of interests, from organic food retailers such as Hummingbird Wholesale to groups such as ProgressOhio, Friends of the Earth, and even a vegan chef company called “Taste of Raw.”
In the letter, the groups accuse the proposed rule of allowing poultry company employees to take over the jobs of 800 USDA inspectors by reducing the number of inspectors watching birds on evisceration lines and adding more off-line inspectors performing microbial testing.
“The department is promoting this change as an opportunity to modernize the inspection program,” the letter reads. “But what it boils down to is an attempt to cut USDA’s workforce by putting the health and safety of consumers and workers at risk.”
According to Food and Water Watch, one turkey plant involved in a pilot program had employees missing 99 percent of food safety and wholesomeness defects on birds.
One counterpoint brought up in past discussions by USDA officials has been the statistic that agency inspectors only find “infectious conditions” on four individual birds out of every 100 million.
The letter also raises the issue of line speeds, which it says will be allowed to increase to 175 birds per minute, up from the current 140. Currently, lines are allowed to run at speeds of 35 birds per every inspector on the line, up to 140 birds a minute with four inspectors. Under the new rules, one inspector would monitor a line that could potentially run at 175 birds per minute.
“Proper inspection cannot occur at these excessive line speeds, whether conducted by a trained USDA inspector or a company employee,” the letter reads.
USDA has said that the low rate at which inspectors find problems is the reason for moving them off the line and into jobs that involve microbial sampling for illness-causing pathogens.
Another point made by USDA and poultry industry representatives is that line speeds may increase for slaughter and evisceration processing, but not on the “second processing” line, which they say involves the majority of employee food handling. (Food Safety News published more information on the debate around line speeds and worker safety yesterday: “Debate Grows Over Poultry Worker Safety Under Proposed HIMP Regulations”)
The proposed rule places responsibility for protecting consumer safety on plant employees, but it does not require any training before they perform duties normally done by trained government inspectors, the letter goes on to say. The rule also puts workers at greater harm by increasing line speeds, it adds.
Several workers’ rights organizations have opposed the proposed regulation, including the American Federation of Government Employees, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Council of La Raza.
“The proposed rule would let the fox guard the hen house, at the expense of worker safety and consumer protection,” the letter concludes. “We urge you to stop any further consideration of this ill-conceived proposal.”
USDA says that its proposed rule is meant to modernize the poultry industry to better deal with microbial threats such as Salmonella and Campylobacter. The proposed rules would be the first major changes to industry inspection since the 1950s.
Because inspectors cannot detect microbial contamination with the naked eye, USDA has said it makes sense to place more emphasis on microbial contamination testing of chicken carcasses. Plants would also be required to establish plans for how to mitigate pathogenic contamination – something they are not currently required to do.
Part of the proposed rules, the HACCP Inspection Models Project, has been operating as pilot programs in roughly two dozen poultry facilities for more than 15 years.
While there is no timeline for when, or if, HIMP and its related poultry regulation will be expanded beyond the 30 pilot plants, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said this week that the Obama administration’s budget for fiscal 2015 provides less funding for the Food Safety and Inspection Service because of changes that will eliminate some poultry inspection jobs.
New York City health officials have identified an outbreak of a rare skin infection in at least 30 people who handled live or raw fish or seafood purchased in markets in the Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens Chinatowns.
Mycobacterium marinum, the source of the infection, enters the skin through cuts or other injuries. Symptoms include red, tender swelling under the skin of the hands and arms, hand or arm pain, and difficulty moving fingers.
Officials are warning customers to wear waterproof gloves in their home when preparing live or raw fish or seafood that came from a market in Chinatown, especially if they have cuts or abrasions.
Employees of these seafood markets and the restaurants that purchase food from these markets also are urged to wear waterproof gloves when handling live or raw fish or seafood.
Infected people need to take one or more antibiotics to treat the infection. Only a few specific antibiotics can cure this infection, the health department says, so treatment should begin quickly. If the infection isn’t treated correctly, it can worsen over weeks or months and may require surgery.
There is no risk associated with consuming the food from these markets.
Officials are urging anyone with symptoms of an M. marinum infection, or who believes they are at risk, to see a dermatologist or an infectious disease physician.
“Eat like your ancestors.” The phrase brings about feelings of nostalgia for all that is good, simple and natural about food. Perdue’s Harvestland campaign slogan conjures up an image of farming ways of the past. Its website points consumers to chicken recipes from the turn of the century. At that time, the world of chicken was a starkly different one from today. The habits of eating meat were also radically different.
At the turn of the century and for many decades afterward, chickens were standard, slow-growing breeds. They were diverse in their genetics. The number-one meat chicken breed at that time in America was the Barred Plymouth Rock, although farmers would have also used a plethora of breeds, including Rhode Island Reds, New Hampshire, Old English Game, Leghorns, Wyndotte, Dominques, White Faced Spanish, Crevecoeurs, Cochin and Javas.
These birds were slaughtered at 16 to 18 weeks and reached 2- 2.5 pounds.1 Today, by contrast, chickens reach more than double that slaughter weight (5.8 lbs) in one-third of the time, at six weeks. As a result of selective breeding, birds grow furiously fast and unnaturally large, much to the detriment of their welfare. And, by contrast, 80 percent of all of today’s chicken produced globally — some 44 billion birds — come from one of three breeding companies (Cobb-Vantress, Hubbard, and Ross) that all produce a bird almost identical genetically.
The birds of our ancestors grew gradually and were dual-purpose for eggs and meat. They lived out their lives on pasture and were given the scraps from family leftovers. With no electricity and limited refrigeration, birds were hatched by hens right on the farm where they were raised. Today, a breeding and hatching farm is a separate operation from a rearing farm. The welfare of breeding chickens is often dire. They are given severe feed restrictions to keep them from growing too quickly.
If we were to eat like our ancestors, we’d eat chicken on special occasions, likely no more than once a week, say for a Sunday dinner. We’d eat meat rarely. What we did eat would be from slow-growing, standard breeds raised on pasture. Most of the recipes around the turn of the century would have been designed using old roosters, old hens, layer roosters and dual-purpose roosters.
This represents a stark difference from the reality of today’s method of rearing chickens and our consumption of them. In 2013, the average American ate 84 pounds of chicken, almost entirely fast-growing hybrid breeds. Today, 95 percent of all factory-farmed animals in the United States are chickens raised for meat. That is more than 8 billion animals.
The truth is that 99 percent of chickens today, including Perdue’s Harvestland chickens, are kept in overcrowded and dimly lit conditions. Tens of thousands of chickens are kept in one windowless house. They are bred to grow unnaturally large and unnaturally fast, so much so that they can collapse under the weight of their own enormous chests and have difficulty walking and breathing. All of this crowding makes it difficult to keep the air fresh and the litter clean and dry.
The campaign states it has “No antibiotics, fillers, hormones or steroids—just good, old-fashioned chicken, turkey and pork.” The lack of these elements is the only obvious similarity to our ancestors’ birds2. Hormones and steroids are, of course, illegal to use in all pigs and poultry. So the only true differentiation is the lack of antibiotics in the feed of their meat birds (though not in their breeder birds). This is a welcome improvement in terms of human health. But it is meaningless from the perspective of the welfare of chickens if this is not accompanied by improvements in the conditions in which the chickens are reared and the genetics within the birds.
The reality for chickens today is a far cry from the pasture-based systems of our ancestors, where diverse and robust birds roamed freely. Eating like our ancestors ate would mean a vast improvement in the lives of billions of chickens, involving using slower-growing breeds and pasture-based systems, and a serious reduction in our meat consumption. If that is what Perdue intends to foster, then they are proposing a much-needed reform of the current poultry-farming system. However, simply removing antibiotics from feed is only scratching the surface.
1Source: Frank Reese, poultry historian and standard bred chicken breeder, http://www.goodshepherdpoultryranch.com/
2Antibiotics didn’t exist at the turn of the century. The first antibiotic, penicillin, was not approved as a drug until 1942.
At least 1.6 million students who previously paid for their own lunches at National School Lunch Program cafeterias have dropped out because they don’t like the new menus or the associated price increases, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) says in a new report. In that report, GAO documents some significant shrinkage in the school lunch program during the 2012-13 school year because of changes dictated by the Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
But there is no shrinkage for any of the nation’s top three nutritional programs — all run by USDA — in the proposed budget for fiscal year 2015 sent to Congress earlier this week by President Obama. The National School Lunch Program will get $20.537 billion for fiscal 2015, up from $19.287 billion in the current year. The changes required under the 2010 act took effect mostly during the 2012-13 school year.
Food stamps — now called the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program or SNAP — is the nation’s largest nutritional program, which will cost taxpayers $84.256 billion in fiscal 2015, which begins Oct. 1, 2014. In the current year, the electronic SNAP cards will ring up $82.169 billion.
Prior to that school year, GAO said the National School Lunch Program served 31 million school children at a cost of about $11.6 billion (fiscal 2012). Changes imposed on the 100,000 schools in the National School Lunch program involved both portion and calorie control, especially calling for more fruits and vegetables, mostly to combat childhood obesity.
USDA’s Women, Infants and Children’s (WIC) program will, under Obama’s budget, get a bump to $6.823 billion, up from $6.715 billion in the current year. WIC is the nutrition program for low-income, at-risk pregnant and post-partum women. Obama’s budget calls for $60 million for breastfeeding counselors and $30 million for new technology.
Overall, Obama is asking for an increase of about $3.5 billion for the three largest nutritional programs provided by the federal government — to $111.6 billion, up from $108.1 billion.
Once the top three programs are included, USDA’s total spending on food and nutrition in fiscal 2015 will reach $155 billion. This includes includes spending on hunger programs and USDA’s spending on surplus commodities. Giving away blocks of cheese and other staples, for example, preceded the food stamp program and have not gone away.
Last week, organizations representing consumers and farm workers convened in Washington, D.C., to speak with members of Congress and U.S. Department of Agriculture officials about the threat they feel new poultry plant regulations pose to both plant worker safety and food safety as a whole.
The USDA regulations of concern are part of HIMP, or the HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project (HACCP stands for Hazards Analysis and Critical Control Points). HIMP has been in practice since 1999, when a select number of poultry and hog plants began operating pilot programs under a new set of inspection rules intended to improve the microbial food safety. Today, HIMP pilot programs are taking place in 20 chicken plants, five hog plants and five turkey plants.
One major point of contention brought up by the groups in D.C. centers on line speeds. As part of the HIMP program, chicken plants have been permitted to increase the speed of their evisceration lines from 140 to 175 birds per minute.
U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) and other congressional leaders joined a coalition of poultry plant workers on Thursday to urge USDA to not allow for increased line speeds when the HIMP rules are extended to all poultry plants sometime in the future. Increased line speeds increase the risk of worker injuries, they argued, as many injuries in the plant involve accidents on the line.
While there is no timeline for when, or if, HIMP and its related poultry regulation will be expanded beyond the 30 pilot plants, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said this week that the Obama administration’s budget for fiscal 2015 provides less funding for the Food Safety and Inspection Service because of changes that will eliminate some poultry inspection jobs.
Meanwhile, poultry industry representatives have argued that the speed of the evisceration line has not been shown to have an impact on worker safety. In fact, the evisceration line – the second of three processing lines in a poultry plant – is mostly automated through the use of machines. The speed of the second processing line, which involves the majority of manual labor, will not be increased and therefore does not put workers at a heightened level of risk, said Tom Super, spokesman for the National Chicken Council.
According to data taken from the first 15 years of HIMP pilot programs, there is no evidence that line speeds for slaughter or evisceration of chicken increase the number of worker injuries that occur in the plant, Super said. Most manual labor, he said, is concentrated on the second processing line, where workers are cutting and deboning chicken for retail packaging, and which will not be subjected to increased line speeds.
“Worker safety is a very high priority for the industry,” Super told Food Safety News. “People are certainly our most important asset. We would never support any proposal that we thought would be detrimental to our workforce.”
But the groups representing worker interests are worried about increasing the speed of any lines. While the rate of worker injury rates for poultry plants has dramatically dropped in the past 20 years (from 22.7 injuries per 100 workers in 1994 down to 4.9 injuries in 2013), poultry plant injuries still rank slightly higher than the average factory worker injury rate (4.3 injuries per 100 workers in 2013).
The central source of injuries and complaints from poultry plant workers is the speed at which they have to work, said Tom Fritzsche, staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of several groups campaigning against increased line speeds.
“These people have jobs where they’re doing astronomically high numbers of repetitive motions – some of them requiring significant force,” Fritzche said. “These motions can cause long-term injuries that can make it impossible to work another job, or possibly even move in basic ways.”
Fritzsche said that his organization brought in a number of poultry plant workers to discuss injuries they sustained on the job. A woman working at a plant in Alabama developed debilitating carpal tunnel syndrome after 17 years of deboning chickens and was fired. Another woman in Mississippi developed arthritis in her shoulder after just three years on the job due to the rapid repetitive motions she performed for hours at a time, Fritzsche said.
“I think the USDA is absolutely in denial of the effect the speed of the line has on workers’ health,” he added.
The industry has a track record of continually improving worker safety, said the National Chicken Council’s Super. The 15 years of data from the HIMP pilot program prove that speeds of 175 birds per minute do not impact worker safety, he said, and, in fact, some European countries have maintained safe work environments with line speeds approaching 200 birds per minute.
The advocacy groups arguing against higher line speeds also say the act of increasing line speeds takes another jab at a workforce that is already exploited and vulnerable. That workforce is disproportionately composed of Latino and African-American workers, many of them immigrants who run up against language barrier problems, said Catherine Singley, manager of employment policy projects at the National Council of La Raza.
“We’re looking at this through a civil rights lens,” Singley said.
Fritzsche also voiced concern that, under HIMP rules, plant employees would be given more responsibility to monitor the quality of the birds, while inspectors would be moving more to roles that involve looking at microbial safety.
One of the most common complaints among a survey of poultry workers in Alabama, he said, was the fear of retaliation for bringing up problems in the plant. Workers reported not feeling comfortable stopping the line for quality concerns because they feared negative reactions from upper management for slowing production, Fritzsche said. One worker, he said, even reported once getting physically caught on the line and later being punished for using the emergency stop button to free himself.
“We’re concerned that if some workers are responsible for pointing out a carcass with feces on it, for instance, they may feel like they’re under pressure not to slow down the line to take care of the problem,” he said.
As far as the new employee roles affecting food safety inspection, they don’t, according to Ashley Peterson, Ph.D., vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs at the National Chicken Council.
Inspectors will still be required on every poultry processing line looking at every bird, she said. It’s true that inspectors will be turning their focus more toward microbial testing, but it’s still the law to have an inspector reviewing each bird.
Asked if the increased line speeds for slaughter and evisceration would create a bottleneck on the second processing line where the speeds will remain the same, Peterson said that plants may add additional second processing lines to account for the faster slaughter and evisceration, but workers are not asked to work faster on the second processing line.
Super added that the speed of the lines will ultimately be determined by economics. Plants will process as many birds as consumers will eat, and plants are not required to operate lines at 175 birds per minute.
Ultimately, Super said, the industry and USDA had both workers and consumers in mind when making the new rules, which are the first update to those created in the 1950s, when the industry looked nothing like it does today.
“I don’t think the USDA would put forth a proposal that they thought would be detrimental to the workforce, much less consumers,” Super said.